John Osborne

John Osborne

Infobox Writer
name = John Osborne

caption =
birthdate = birth date|1929|12|12|df=y
birthplace = Fulham, London, England
deathdate = death date and age|1994|12|24|1929|12|12|df=y
deathplace = Clun, Shropshire, England
occupation = Playwright, political activist
nationality = English
genre = Social Realism, Kitchen Sink Drama
movement = Angry Young Man
period = 1950–1992
notableworks = Look Back in Anger
influences = Max Miller
influenced = Theatre in the UK
website =

John James Osborne (December 12, 1929–December 24, 1994) was an English playwright, screenwriter, actor and critic of The Establishment. The stunning success of his 1956 play "Look Back in Anger" transformed English theatre. In a productive life of more than 40 years, Osborne explored many themes and genres, writing for stage, film and TV. His personal life was extravagant and iconoclastic. He was notorious for the ornate violence of his language, not only on behalf of the political causes he supported but also against his own family, including his wives and children though they often gave as good as they got.

He came onto the theatrical scene at a time when British acting was enjoying a golden age, but most great plays came from the United States and France. British plays remained blind to the complexities of the postwar period. Osborne was one of the first writers to address Britain's purpose in the post-imperial age. He was the first to question the point of the monarchy on a prominent public stage. During his peak (1956-1966), he helped make contempt an acceptable and now even cliched onstage emotion, argued for the cleansing wisdom of bad behaviour and bad taste, and combined unsparing truthfulness with devastating wit.

Early life

He was born in December 1929 in London, the son of Thomas Godfrey Osborne, a commercial artist and advertising copywriter of South Welsh extraction, and Nellie Beatrice, a Cockney barmaid. He adored his father and hated his mother, who he later wrote taught him "The fatality of hatred … She is my disease, an invitation to my sick room", and described her as "hypocritical, self-absorbed, calculating and indifferent". Thomas died in 1941, leaving the young boy an insurance settlement which he used to finance a private education at Belmont College, a minor public school in Devon. He entered the school in 1943 but was expelled in the summer term of 1945 after whacking the headmaster, who had struck him for listening to a forbidden broadcast by Frank Sinatra. School certificate was the only formal qualification he acquired, but he possessed a native intelligence.

After school, Osborne went home to his mother in London and briefly tried trade journalism. A job tutoring a touring company of junior actors introduced him to the theatre. He soon became involved as a stage manager and acting, joining Anthony Creighton's provincial touring company. Osborne tried his hand at writing plays, co-writing his first, "The Devil Inside Him", with his mentor Stella Linden, who then directed it at the Theatre Royal, Huddersfield in 1950. Around this time he also married Pamela Lane. His second play "Personal Enemy" was written with Anthony Creighton (with whom he also wrote "Epitaph for George Dillon" staged at the Royal Court in 1958) and staged in regional theatres before he submitted "Look Back in Anger".

"Look Back in Anger"

Written in seventeen days in a deckchair on Morecambe pier where he was performing in a creaky rep show called "Seagulls over Sorrento", "Look Back in Anger" was largely autobiographical, based on his time living, and rowing, with Pamela Lane in cramped accommodation in Derby while she cuckolded him with a local dentist. It was submitted to agents all over London and returned with great rapidity. In his autobiography, Osborne writes: "The speed with which it had been returned was not surprising, but its aggressive dispatch did give me a kind of relief. It was like being grasped at the upper arm by a testy policeman and told to move on". Finally it was sent to the newly-formed English Stage Company at London's Royal Court Theatre. Formed by actor-manager and artistic director George Devine, the company's first three productions had been flops and it urgently needed a success if it were to survive. Devine was prepared to gamble on this play because he saw in it a ferocious and scowling articulation of a new post-war spirit. Osborne was living on a leaky houseboat on the River Thames at the time with Creighton, stewing up nettles from the riverbank to eat. So keen was Devine to contact Osborne that he rowed out to the boat to tell him he would like to make the play the fourth production to enter repertory. The play was directed by Tony Richardson and starred Kenneth Haigh, Mary Ure, and Alan Bates. It was George Fearon, a part-time press officer at the theatre, who invented the phrase angry young man. Fearon told Osborne that he disliked the play and feared it would be impossible to market [Little & McLaughlin, p.25] .

In 1993, a year before his death, Osborne wrote that the opening night was "an occasion I only partly remember, but certainly with more accuracy than those who subsequently claimed to have been present and, if they are to be believed, would have filled the theatre several times over". Reviews were mixed. Most of the critics who attended the first night felt it was a failure, and it looked as if the English Stage Company was going to go into liquidation. [Little & McLaughlin (p.326) cite a letter from Stephen Daldry "I have in our archives letters from members of the audience from the original production of "Look Back in Anger" demanding their money back. Had we honoured every one of those requests, this theatre would not have been able to survive"] The "Evening Standard", for example, called the play "a failure" and "a self-pitying snivel". But the following Sunday, Kenneth Tynan of "The Observer" - the most influential critic of the age - praised it to the skies: 'I could not love anyone who did not wish to see "Look Back in Anger",' he wrote, "It is the best young play of its decade". Harold Hobson of "The Sunday Times" called Osborne "a writer of outstanding promise". During production, the married Osborne began a relationship with Mary Ure, and would divorce his wife, Pamela Lane, to marry her in 1957. The play went on to be an enormous commercial success, transferring to the West End and to Broadway, touring to Moscow and in 1958 a film version was released with Richard Burton and Mary Ure in the leading roles. The play turned Osborne from a struggling playwright into a wealthy and famous angry young man and won him the Evening Standard Drama Award as the most promising playwright of the year.

"The Entertainer" and into the 1960s

When he first saw "Look Back in Anger", Laurence Olivier was dismissive, viewing the play as unpatriotic and bad theatre, "a travesty on England". ["The Guardian" Tuesday March 6, 2007 [,,2027355,00.html 'It's me, isn't it?'] ] At the time, Olivier was making a film of Rattigan's "The Prince and the Showgirl" co-starring Marilyn Monroe, and she was accompanied to London by her then-husband Arthur Miller. Olivier asked the American dramatist what plays he might want to see in London. Based on its title, Miller suggested Osborne's work; Olivier tried to dissuade him, but the playwright was insistent and the two of them saw it together.

Miller found the play revelatory, and they went backstage to meet Osborne. Olivier was impressed by the American's reaction, and asked John Osborne to write him a play; John Heilpern suggests the great actor's about-face was due to a midlife crisis, Olivier seeking a new challenge after decades of success in Shakespeare and other classics, and fearful of losing his pre-eminence to this new kind of theatre. George Devine, artistic director of the Royal Court, sent Olivier the incomplete script of "The Entertainer" (1957, filmed in 1959) and Olivier initially wanted to play Billy Rice, the lead character's decent elderly father. On seeing the finished script, he changed his mind and took the central role as failing music-hall performer Archie Rice, playing to great acclaim both at the Royal Court and then in the West End. ["The Guardian" Tuesday March 6, 2007 [,,2027355,00.html 'It's me, isn't it?'] ]

"The Entertainer" uses the metaphor of the dying music hall tradition and its eclipse by early rock and roll to comment on the moribund state of the British Empire and its eclipse by the power of the United States, something flagrantly revealed during the Suez Crisis of November 1956 which elliptically forms the backdrop to the play. An experimental piece, "The Entertainer" was interspersed with vaudeville performances. Most critics praised the development of an exciting writing talent:

The words are Billy Rice's, though as with much of Osborne's work they could be said to represent his own sentiments, as with this quote from "Look Back in Anger":

Following "The Entertainer" were "The World of Paul Slickey" (1959) a musical which satirizes the tabloid press, the unusual television documentary play "A Subject of Scandal and Concern" (1960) and the 1962 double bill "Plays for England", comprising "The Blood of the Bambergs" and "Under Plain Covers".

"Luther", depicting the life of Martin Luther, the archetypal rebel of an earlier century, was first performed in 1961; it transferred to Broadway and won Osborne a Tony Award. "Inadmissible Evidence" was first performed in 1964. In between these plays, Osborne won an Oscar for his 1963 adaptation of "Tom Jones". "A Patriot for Me" (1965) was a tale of turn-of-the-century homosexuality and was instrumental in putting the boot in to the eighteenth-century system of theatrical censorship under the Lord Chamberlain. Both "A Patriot For Me" and "The Hotel in Amsterdam" [This play features three showbiz couples in a hotel suite, having fled a tyrannical and unpleasant movie producer, referred to as "K.L". Heilpern (p. 359) confirms the rumour that "K.L" was in fact a portrait of Tony Richardson, seen through Osborne's eyes. Laurie, a screenwriter, a role created by the late Paul Scofield, is a self-portrait: Osborne at mid-career] won Evening Standard Best Play of the Year awards.

1970s and later life

John Osborne's plays in the 1970s included "A Sense of Detachment", first produced at the Royal Court in 1972, and "Watch It Come Down", first produced at the National Theatre at the Old Vic starring Ralph Richardson.

In 1971, Osborne turned in his most famous acting appearance, lending Cyril Kinnear a sense of civil menace in "Get Carter". In 1978 he appeared as an actor in "Tomorrow Never Comes" and in 1980 in "Flash Gordon".

Through the 1980s Osborne played the role of Shropshire squire with great pleasure and a heavy dose of irony. He wrote a diary for "The Spectator". He opened his garden to raise money for the church roof, from which he threatened to withdraw covenant-funding unless the vicar restored the Book of Common Prayer. (He had returned to the Church of England about 1974.)

In the last decade of his life, he published two volumes of autobiography, "A Better Class of Person" (1981) and "Almost a Gentleman" (1991). "A Better Class of Person" was filmed by Thames TV in 1985 and was nominated for the Prix Italia with Eileen Atkins and Alan Howard as his parents and Gary Capelin and Neil McPherson as Osborne.

He also collected various newspaper and magazine writings together in 1994 under the title "Damn You, England". At his memorial service in 1995, playwright David Hare said:

His last play was "Déjà Vu" (1991), a sequel to "Look Back in Anger".

Complete works

Critical responses, idols and effect

Osborne was a great fan of Max Miller and saw parallels between them. 'I love him, (Max Miller) because he embodied a kind of theatre I admire most. 'Mary from the Dairy' was an overture to the danger that (Max) might go too far. Whenever anyone tells me that a scene or a line in a play of mine goes too far in some way then I know my instinct has been functioning as it should. When such people tell you that a particular passage makes the audience uneasy or restless, then they seem (to me) as cautious and absurd as landladies and girls-who-won't.'

Osborne's work transformed British theatre. He helped to make it artistically respected again, throwing off the formal constraints of the former generation, and turning our attention once more to language, theatrical rhetoric, and emotional intensity. He saw theatre as a weapon with which ordinary people could break down the class barriers and that he had a'beholden duty to kick against the pricks'. He wanted his plays to be a reminder of real pleasures and real pains. David Hare said in his memorial address:

Osborne did change the world of theatre, influencing playwrights such as Edward Albee and Mike Leigh. However, work of his authenticity and originality would remain the exception rather than the rule. This did not surprise Osborne; nobody understood the tackiness of the theatre better than the man who had played Hamlet on Hayling Island. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Writer's Guild of Great Britain.

Osborne joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1959. However, like Philip Larkin, he drifted to the libertarian, unorganized right, considering himself "a radical who hates change".


Osborne remained angry until the end of his life. Many women seem to have found his anger attractive - he had more than his fair share of lovers in addition to wives, and he was not kind to them. Plenty of evidence showed that, in relationships, he was an out-and-out cad. In his own autobiography he details some of the brazen subterfuges he created in order to commit adultery with Penelope Gilliatt before they were married [Osborne, pp 181-3 for example] . Jill Bennett's suicide is generally believed to have been a result of Osborne's rejection of her. He said of Bennett: "She was the most evil woman I have come across", and showed open contempt for her suicide. [Heilpern writes (page 443) that the second volume of Osborne's autobiography was ready to go to press at Faber & Faber. Bennett's suicide freed Osborne from the restraining order arising from their bitter divorce. He sat down and wrote a new chapter for the book, specifically to excoriate his ex-wife.]

In his 2006 biography, [Heilpern, p. 267] John Heilpern describes at length a vacation in Valbonne, [It was from Valbonne that Osborne wrote the infamous "Damn You, England" letter that was published in "Tribune" on 18 August, 1961. (Heilpern, page 239)] France, in 1961, that Osborne shared with Tony Richardson, a distraught George Devine, and others. Feigning bafflement over the romantic entanglements of the time, Heilpern writes:

Osborne's vexations with women extended to an extremely cruel relationship with his daughter Nolan, born from his marriage with Penelope Gilliatt. His vicious abuse of his teenaged daughter culminated with him casting her out of his house when she was aged seventeen. They never spoke again. [Heilpern, page 421-2] Only his last marriage was comparatively devoted and private, as his wife was intelligent but held no competing ambitions.

He was married five times; the first four ended in divorce, the last in his death:
* 1) Pamela Lane (1951-1957; inspired Alison Porter from "Look Back in Anger")
* 2) Mary Ure (1957-1963)
* 3) Penelope Gilliatt (1963-1968)
* 4) Jill Bennett (1968-1977)
* 5) Helen Dawson (former arts journalist and critic for "The Observer", 1978-1994)


After a serious liver crisis in 1987, Osborne became a diabetic, injecting twice a day. He died from complications from his diabetes at the age of 65 at his home in Clunton, near Craven Arms, Shropshire. He is buried in St George's churchyard, Clun, Shropshire alongside his last wife, the critic Helen Dawson, who died in 2004.

Major sources

* []

External links

*Screenonline name|id=452881|name=John Osborne


name = John Osborne
title = The Plays of John Osborne
titlestyle = background:#A7DC74;

list1 = "The Devil Inside", "The Great Bear", "Personal Enemy", "Look Back in Anger", "The Entertainer", "Epitaph for George Dillon", "The World of Paul Slickey", "A Subject of Scandal and Concern", "Luther", "Plays for England", "Inadmissible Evidence", "A Patriot for Me", "A Bond Honoured", "The Hotel in Amsterdam", "Time Present", "West of Suez", "A Sense of Detachment", "Hedda Gabler", "A Place Calling Itself Rome", "The End of Me Old Cigar", "The Picture of Dorian Gray", "Watch It Come Down", "Try a Little Tenderness", "The Father", "Déjàvu"

NAME= Osborne, John
SHORT DESCRIPTION= English playwright and social rebel
DATE OF BIRTH= 12 December, 1929
PLACE OF BIRTH= Fulham, London
DATE OF DEATH= 24 December, 1994
PLACE OF DEATH= Clun, Shropshire, England

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